Monday will mark the 15th anniversary of one of the most sensational games of football ever played, the comeback of comebacks, the greatest Champions League final of them all, the ‘Miracle Of Istanbul’.
And 15 years might just qualify as enough time passed for your correspondent to revisit his minor role in the night’s drama without succumbing to facial twitching, lurid hallucinations, screaming fits and other disturbing manifestations of the football journalist’s version of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But, on second thoughts, maybe it’s still too soon.
Because, even as I type these words, I’m beginning to feel that familiar cold sweat breaking out again, something strange is happening to my vision, a swirling mist appears and disappears and, suddenly, it’s penalty shoot-out time in the 2005 Champions League final on the outskirts of Istanbul and I’m in Row Z of the Ataturk Stadium , way up in the gods, standing on tippy-toes to see because everyone else around me is standing too.
Not to mention jumping and shouting and screaming and weeping.
Meantime, I’m keeping a desperate grip on the laptop with one hand and frantically typing with the other, all the while straining to identify each new tiny penalty taker as he steps up to the spot.
The battery on the computer is almost dead, the wi-fi is coming and going, the mobile phones are down, the midnight hour has passed, one day has spilled into another, and the original deadline for my expected 1000-word match report has, I can only assume, long since come and gone.
And so, with the whole stadium in uproar around me as Jerzy Dudek saves from Andriy Shevchenko and, like a bunch of sugar-infused little kids, the Liverpool players go leaping and bounding up the pitch, all I can think is that the paper paid good money to fly me all the way to Istanbul to cover what has turned out to be the greatest Champions League final ever and, even as I press ‘send’ on the laptop — and, damn it, now the hotmail is moving at a glacial pace — I have no way no way of knowing if a single word I’ve written will ever see the light of day.
To begin with, it hadn’t helped that, in the vast arena of the Ataturk that night, I’d found myself at kick-off not in the press box but in what they call “press overspill” — normal stand seats cordoned off for those international journalists who, for a big occasion such as this, would be deemed well down the pecking order behind media personnel from Milan and Liverpool, obviously, as well as the host nation, Turkey, and then the traditional European football superpowers of England, Germany, Spain and France.
It might be worth saying at this point that I’ve long since given up trying to convince sceptics that being a football journalist is anything other than a jolly. You get paid to travel the world to watch football? Spare me the tears, pal.
Fair enough, too. But only up to a point. And if ever there was a night which defined the yawning gulf between how a reporter and a supporter experiences a football match, this was the one. Especially in the “press overspill” section of the Ataturk where the seats came without desk or power point or TV monitor, all fairly useful tools for the working hack with a deadline to meet on the final whistle.
As it turned out, by half-time in the
2005 Champions League final, the job, much like Liverpool, was effectively done and dusted. With Milan three-up, I had the rare experience in covering a big game of being able to devote the half-time break to writing the guts of the ‘final analysis’, maybe 600 or more words on the theme of the upstart Merseysiders being put in their place by the European aristocrats, that class of thing.
Before the restart I even had time to insert a handy bit of colour courtesy of a passing Liverpool supporter who saw me typing away and leaned in to declare with a mad cackle: “Don’t forget to say that we’re going to win on pens, right?”
A good one, right enough.
Then the second half kicked off and, after nine minutes, Steven Gerrard pulled one back.
Then Vladimir Smicer scored.
And then, barely six minutes since Stevie G had headed home his apparent consolation goal, it was Xavi Alonso on the rebound from the penalty spot to make it 3-3.
At which point, up in my seat in Row Z, it wasn’t so much a case of ‘reverse ferret’ as ‘terminate ferret with extreme prejudice’. Delete. Delete. Delete.
Into the abyss went my 600 words of carefully crafted prose. Like Milan, and almost as shell-shocked, I was going to have to start again from scratch.
The rest is history and hysteria, Dudek’s astonishing double-save from Shevchenko in extra-time not just another improbable twist in a game of ineffable drama but, in retrospect, surely the nail in the coffin for the Milan striker who must have felt he was up against some strange kind of voodoo when he stepped forward to take the night’s decisive spot-kick.
In covering those penos, it would have been nice if I could have included a reference to the fact that Smicer’s successful effort meant he became the first player ever to score on successive days in the same match.
But, frankly, I figured I was doing well enough at that point if I just managed to spell his name right.
And then, when it was all over, there was still the small matter of an intro required. In the end, it was born more out of desperation than anything else but I like to think that at least it had the virtue of authenticity: “I saw it with my own eyes and I still can’t quite believe it.”
After that, it was probably only a matter of minutes before the mobile network kicked back into life but it felt to me like hours had already elapsed when my phone finally beeped with a two-word message from HQ: “Got it”.
And that, friends, was my own little miracle of Istanbul.
Thanks to trojan work by the sports desk, who’d extended the normal print deadline in order to get the paper off to press in the wee hours, my Champions League match report made it into the following morning’s edition.
Or so I’m told. For fear that I would discover it contained some unspeakable howler — or 10 — I have never been able to bring myself to re-read that report.
Maybe I will for the 20th anniversary.
But, then again, that might still be a bit too soon.